What inspired you to dedicate your career to entertaining children?
I got hired, about a year out of college, to be a music specialist at a preschool. I was their music teacher. I felt like my main goal was to have music just be fun for these kids. They were six and under. The more fun they could have with music and feel like it was naturally something that was part of them, the less embarrassed they would feel expressing themselves that way. I think [that] happens as kids get older. They start to judge themselves – are they good at singing? Are they good at instruments … or dancing? – that kind of thing.
I started doing that and I realized I had no idea on how to talk to a four-year-old. I couldn’t remember. It was like they spoke a whole other language. I remember crying every night thinking, “I can’t do this job.” One kid gets up and walks across the room. I go to get him/her and the rest of them are gone. They’re fighting over things with each other and I don’t know why.
I did some research. I started talking to the woman who had the job for 10 years before me. I watched how she somehow magically got them all to do things together at the same time, and [they] looked like they were having fun. I actually started asking these kids what they wanted to do rather than bringing in songs. I would go to a library, this was in the 1990s, and take home cassettes and CDs, listen to songs and hope I would find something that would appeal to them.
I started asking them, instead, “What do you guys want to sing about?” I started making things up. The combination of doing that and paying attention to the fact that they wanted to move their bodies as much as make the music. That they wanted to experience it both ways is so important. And I realized I enjoyed making up these songs and the kids really enjoyed them so I just followed that.
Didn’t you already have some experience as an entertainer, having played in bands and doing club gigs?
I played clarinet and violin in high school. I picked up the guitar when I was about 17. I played piano before that. I loved singing and was desperate for an instrument that I didn’t stick in my mouth, hold under my chin or have to sit at, so I could move around and actually sing.
I had a rock band of my own and I was in other people’s bands. I was in an all-female cover band for a while. That was the only one that made any money. That was a lot of fun. But eventually I realized kids’ music was what was taking off for me and was also the most creative thing I was doing.
Are your band mates as dedicated to children’s music as you are, or is it just a gig for them?
I don’t know. I would say it’s different for each of them at different levels. With Susie [Lampert], I think she loves doing the kid’s stuff, but a lot of it has to do with our friendship and relationship over the years. We played in that all-female cover band together. It’s as much us playing together as playing for kids. She also loves playing for kids. I think that’s been a real joy for her.
It’s hard for me to answer for them. I know that Adam [Bernstein] does a whole lot of different things. Once he started playing with me, he started teaching some music classes for preschoolers, which was a new thing for him. He may be developing more into that, I’m not sure, but I know he has a quite a broad range of stuff.
The same thing with Bob [Golden]. He’s worked on a lot of kids’ TV shows, but he’s mainly a producer more than a drummer and, in the studio, a sound engineer. That’s kind of his main gig and I think he really enjoys doing this.
Do you consider yourself strictly a children’s entertainer? Or do you consider yourself an artist who entertains families?
I definitely have felt conscious since starting doing music for kids that it’s just as important for the parents to enjoy the music. If parents and their kids are listening together, it’s a so much deeper experience for all of them.
But I never thought of it that way. The way I always thought about it was from the kid’s point of view. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about it as family music. I think that’s a beautiful and lovely thing I hope people experience. But when I’m actually writing, I think about the kids.
Does inspiration sometimes come from adult situations? That is, can an inspiration come from, say watching a movie or reading a book, or something that’s definitely not from the world of children?
Yeah. I would think so. Sometimes I’m inspired by things I remember from being a kid. But it might be [from] going to an art exhibition or listening to African music where I wouldn’t necessarily be thinking [about children]. Or a pop song comes on the radio and I’m thinking, “That’s such a great idea for a catchy hook.”
The other day I heard a guy playing some song from five or 10 years ago that was really popular in a really minor key. He was just a guy in the subway covering that song. I started thinking, “I want to do something with a chord progression similar to that song.” It will certainly never end up being the same song, but I think a lot of times when I hear something I like, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. It’s very easy to take the core of it and use it for inspiration.
Sometimes, in a movie, it’s just the arc of the movie or there’s some idea in it that doesn’t always lead directly to a song but it might inspire me to go home and start writing.
Is it hard to switch modes between the children’s universe and the adult world? Are you still in children’s mode during the first few minutes after a performance or can you immediately switch gears between kids and adults?
I guess I don’t feel as if I talk to them differently than talking to anybody else. Maybe it’s more limited, the things I would say.
Part of the reason I do this, I feel, for the most part, I can just be myself out there. When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be on Broadway and do musical theatre. I actually did a bunch of shows and I realized I hated feeling like I couldn’t just be myself on stage. That’s what made me join a band. I said, “I’ll just write songs and I’ll be able to say and do whatever I want.” I don’t think I would have continued with the kids’ music if I couldn’t mostly do that. There’s definitely less. I don’t curse or talk about sex.
For a children’s entertainer, is playing the White House Easter Egg Hunt considered a pinnacle or a high point in one’s career?
I think part of what those things feel like is imagining them – that you’re going to get to that point and reach that goal. This whole journey has been … not exactly what I imagined myself doing. So it all just feels like, “Wow! I get to do that now? I’m on TV? Great? I’m playing the White House? Carnegie Hall?”
Starting out teaching music at preschool and daycare centers, that wasn’t what I envisioned I would end up doing. I always loved singing and performing so it’s definitely been a lucky and wonderful combination of things I enjoy – kids and music.
Regarding the business side, especially venue managers, promoters and such, is everyone as geared toward entertaining children as you are? Or is it just part of their overall business that also includes other genres?
It certainly depends on the person. There are some people, I think, who are definitely dedicated. I noticed that people who don’t necessarily do a lot of kids stuff try to take a model for adult shows, or ways you would do entertainment for adults, and try to make it fit for kids. For me, most of the time that doesn’t actually work. There are some real differences.
We did a festival called Jamarama a few years back. It was a really wonderful context, I thought. We played at [New York City’s] Roseland and they found other kind of cool, very adult venues to put shows in. That was their plan. They were also going to have super-hip diaper/mommy stations and ethnic foods parents would enjoy and try to do this combination of entertainment and food and stuff that would be really great for the parents that would feel really hip and cool [while] the kids would get a good show and have a lot of fun.
That is so difficult to do. When we were playing at Roseland, they tried to put matting down on the floor. They wanted to cover the whole floor with that because … there was beer on the floor from the night before and nobody wanted to sit on it, but there weren’t any chairs and there were a couple of thousand people there.
That was a cool idea but actually, in reality, it didn’t work. Plus, we had an opener. [But] kids have a certain amount of time that they can give their all to and then they’re just done. You try to throw in an opening act or have an all-day festival, I think it’s very rare to make that work.
I have to say that “Life Is Good” is the only place I’ve ever seen someone do this successfully. They’re incredible and they actually do an amazing job combining all those things.
I know your question was more about how people in the music business deal with kids. I think that if you don’t deal with kids it’s very easy to imagine that if it works for adults, let’s tailor it for kids and it will be fine. I think you have to come at it from a different angle.
But there are similarities. Like other entertainers, you record albums and perform to support the albums.
Although one of the things I find different is that it’s a little less important [as to] how new the album is. Somebody could pick up my first album from 1997 and be thrilled. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t hear it on the radio. I say that, but a lot of people heard my music on Nick Jr., and that certainly drove a lot of album sales. I think there’s a little more leeway. I’ve met people recently who knew about me because their friend or sister who had a kid first sent it to them and they started listening to them. It can be so much more grassroots. Families, moms and dads, depend on other moms and dads.
You have a new album – A Laurie Berkner Christmas – how do you approach recording a Christmas album for kids when it’s already been done so many different ways before you?
All I did was try to do it like I would do anything else except sing Christmas songs. I even went a little bit backwards in my music progression, or back in time, to when I first started recording. I was doing it for the parents of the kids in my music classes because I was making up these songs and kids would come home and sing about dinosaurs and stuff.
So I went and recorded something on my own. I asked a couple of friends to come in and play a little bit on top of it, but I did all the harmony singing.
With this album, I kind of went back to singing all the harmonies, doing all of the parts, keeping it very simple and then asking people to come in and join me on different songs. If I enjoy singing it, I hope someone else will too. And just kind of singing in a way that feels as if it comes naturally from me. In the meantime, I did a lot of work more in a band style. Some of the songs are arranged for a band, but it’s more of a mix than the last album I made.
Do you listen to your own albums? Or are you too critical when listening to past work and find yourself constantly thinking you could have done a better job?
Sometimes it’s hard. I don’t tend to want to listen to it. This is what usually happens. I look at it and think I’ve listened to it so many times. I close my eyes and listen to the whole thing after it’s been mastered … and then I’m done.
I bring it home, my husband puts it in the CD player, I have a CD changer, and it will pop on and I think, “That voice sounds familiar.” And I realize it’s me. Or I hear it in someone else’s home or it pops up on my iPod or something. Then I’ve kind of taken a step away that it’s very possible to enjoy it. Some of my very early stuff, it’s a little painful to listen to. We were recording on reel-to-reel tape and most of it was live.
But I do feel that it’s a very real pleasure to listen to afterwards and think, “I did that. It’s actually what I wanted it to be and it sounds nice.”
You have an eight-year-old daughter who’s kind of out of your target demo. But when she was younger, say, four or five, did you test drive your music on her before recording it or playing it in front of an audience?
I still do. She hears me playing or walking around humming something, and she goes, “What’s that, Mom? What are you working on?” Now she wants to write the songs herself. But when she was three and four, I would make up stuff while we were playing and see if she responded or liked it. I remember when she was three months old, sitting in her little bouncy chair. I had my guitar, going, “Tell me if you like this one. Are you going to bounce, smile, or start screaming?”
So I paid attention a lot to her. But I have to say, I’m cautious about depending too much on her. She’s one kid, she’s my kid and she’s heard me my whole life. She’s in a unique position.
One of the reasons I think I learned so much when I was a music specialist was that I worked with so many kids. In a week I would see more than 200 different kids. I could try out so many different things on them. And I got this real kind of broad sense of response. Like, “Okay, those three kids didn’t like it, but all the rest did.” It’s so different when you have just one child. They don’t enjoy that kind of group. It’s very different to listen to a song by yourself or be at a show and listening to it with a big group of people. They’re very different experiences.
Regarding your daughter, is being the offspring of a children’s entertainer kind of a status symbol for her?
I think when she was younger it was more so, although she wasn’t so conscious of it. But now that she’s at an age where she kind of gets [it] – I remember last year she had to write a little autobiography and draw a self-portrait and write four things about themselves. And for her, one of the things was, “My Mom is famous.”
And I was actually really surprised at that because we don’t talk about it much. I can only remember a handful of times, like one time at a flea market where she looked at a lady who was selling necklaces or something and she said, “Do you know who my Mom is?” And she said, “Who” and my daughter said, “She’s Laurie Berkner.” And the lady’s like, “Oh. That’s nice.” She didn’t have any idea [laughs] who I was, anyway. The whole thing was so funny. I felt like, “It’s only people who have young kids who know who I am.”
It’s one of those things where I think – she’s been in the same school since she was three – so I’m Lucy’s Mom.” Now that she’s older and more conscious of it, I think it’s less important among her peers.
You’ve done a lot of television. Are you interested in having your own show?
I am. I’m working on a few things that I can’t talk about yet. When I did “Jack’s Big Music Show” I wasn’t interested in doing my own show. I felt that what I do is write and perform music. That’s what I’m good at. That’s what I want to keep doing.
But the longer I keep doing it, the more I realize the different opinions, feelings and ideas that I have about kids’ entertainment in general. I think [a TV show] would be a really fun thing to do.
In a recent piece you wrote for the Huffington Post, you said, “Every woman I know who has a job and is a parent has to deal every day with making enough time for both. I never really am able to do it. I just keep stealing from one part of my life to give to the other.” Have you made any progress on that?
Naw. it hasn’t changed that much. It’s a hard thing. There just aren’t enough hours in a day. I don’t think it’s just moms. When you have this person in your life who is growing and changing so quickly, it’s very hard for me to miss any of that. So I always kind feel like, “Am I going to choose to work right now, or am I going to choose to be with her? How do I get a full day of work in without feeling like I just show up for dinner and bedtime?”
I try to pick her up from school as often as I can. But it’s hard to work between the hours of 9:30 and 2:30.
Do you see yourself doing this, say, 20 or 30 years down the line?
I don’t know. I’ve had that thought a lot. Like, “Do I really want to keep jumping around on the stage for that much longer? I don’t know.”
I feel like different ways I’ve been branching out … just as long as I can be creative and it feels good to me and I feel inspired, then I’m happy to keep doing what I’m doing. If it means I end up going down another path, then I think that will be exciting, too.
I kind of ended up here because I followed what was working for me. It’s not that I never try to make a path for myself, but it does help to look around and see what is working and what is making me be the most creative person I can. I have that conversation with myself. “Do I want to do this when I’m 50 or 60?” And it [the question] feels kind of like a dead end to me because I don’t know what I’ll feel at that point. I’m hoping that if I don’t focus on that and keep working towards what I’m doing at the moment, then I’ll end up where I should be at that age.